Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Gospel According to Wagner

Composed by Richard Wagner
Conducted by Peter Schneider
Starring Ben Heppner, Waltraud Meier, René Pape, Nikoli Putilin, Thomas Hampson
The Metropolitan Opera
Performances through May 18, 2006

Meier and Heppner in Parsifal

Richard Wagner is an operatic litmus test: you either love his works or attend faithfully, like going to church; or you stay away, not wanting to spend five-plus hours with Wagnerian cultists.

And the ultimate test is Wagner's final opera, Parsifal. Those who consider Wagner pretentious and boring nod to Parsifal and, it must be said, they have a point. Wagner's version of the tale of the holy fool Parsifal, prophesized to defend the Knights of the Holy Grail from sinister magician Klingsor and temptress Kundry, is not even labeled an opera: instead, Wagner called it "Bühnenweihfestspiel," or "Stage-Consecrating Festival Play in Three Acts."

If that weren't enough (admittedly, it sounds worse in English), Wagner composed Parsifal solely for performance in his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The opera premiered in 1882, then Wagner died the following year; after that, all bets were off and Parsifal played other opera houses. The first American performance was in 1903 at the Metropolitan Opera House, where it's been a fixture ever since. .

The Met's current production by Otto Schenk--who also did several other popular Met Wagner productions, including the current Ring cycle--has been around since 1991 and, while showing signs of stagnation, remains an absorbing and faithful recreation of Wagner's most contemplative, even (dare I say it?) Christian world, its lushly green forests and meadows a gorgeous backdrop to the stately processions in the Hall of the Grail at the climaxes of Acts I and III.

Schenk's uncluttered staging allows several top-notch Wagner singers to declaim the master's most spiritual music in a concert-like setting. That's what this cast does; in fact, of the three times I've heard Parsifal at the Met, this is undoubtedly the most vocally complete cast I've encountered. (Judging from the sold-out audience's reaction at the curtain calls, I wasn't alone.)

These singers could scarcely be bettered. Russian bass Nikolai Putilin makes the most of his brief time onstage in Act II as Klingsor; amidst the mostly calm and serene sounds, Wagner gave his villain the most up-tempo music. The swirling, propulsive Klingsor theme opening the act propels Putilin--always a larger-than-life stage presence--to give a captivating characterization.

As the knight Gurnemanz, German bass René Pape is his usual self: perfection. Pape's voice, so strong and piercing throughout his lower register--where most of Wagner's vocal writing for Gurnemanz lies--always astounds, and he's a formidable stage presence to boot. American baritone Thomas Hampson is superb as Amfortas, the ailing king, his ringing tone reverberating throughout the house during his emotional outbursts..

As Kundry, who finds redemption through Parsifal's intervention, German soprano Waltraud Meier is on familiar turf, singing a Wagner role with conviction and passion. After her disastrous Met Carmen a few seasons back, Meier returns to what she does best: she's lost a little vocally, but she has such dramatic force she's riveting whenever she's onstage.

Finally, singing his first Met Parsifal, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is a powerhouse. Starting slowly--he does little in the first act and looks silly frolicking with flower maidens in Act II--he lets go in the final act, bringing astonishing emotional heft to his singing.

All in all, it's quite a stirring evening, persuasively led by Austrian conductor Peter Schneider, called in to sub after James Levine's season-ending injury. That Schneider succeeded was evident at his final curtain call, when nearly the entire Met Orchestra was on its feet cheering along with the satisfied audience.

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